WASHINGTON – Frustrated by his options, President Donald Trump is withholding approval of a long-delayed Afghanistan war strategy and even mulling a radical shakeup in his national security team as he searches for a "game changer" after 16 years of indecisive conflict.
In a recent Situation Room meeting that turned explosive, Trump raised the idea of firing Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, according to two officials with knowledge of the discussion. And he suggested installing his national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, to oversee the mission, said the officials, who weren't authorized to talk publicly and requested anonymity.
The drastic suggestions point to the desperation shared by many in Washington as military and other leaders look for a blueprint for "winning" the Afghan conflict. Trump has been frustrated by what he views as a stalemate. He wants a plan that will allow American forces to pull out once and for all.
At a White House lunch with military brass last week, Trump publicly aired his misgivings, saying, "I want to find out why we've been there for 17 years."
The Pentagon wants to send almost 4,000 more American forces to expand training of Afghan military forces and beef up U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida, a growing Islamic State affiliate and other extremist groups. But the troop deployment, which would augment an already existing U.S. force of at least 8,400 troops, has been held up amid broader strategy questions, including how to engage regional powers in an effort to stabilize the fractured nation.
These powers include U.S. friends and foes, from Pakistan and India to China, Russia and Iran. Pentagon plans aren't calling for a radical departure from the limited approach endorsed by former President Barack Obama, and several officials have credited Trump with rightly asking tough questions, such as how the prescribed approach might lead to success.
Trump hasn't welcomed the military's recommendations with "high-five enthusiasm," a senior White House official said. Several meetings involving Trump's National Security Council have been tense as the president demanded answers from top advisers about why American forces needed to be in Afghanistan.
Another U.S. official with knowledge of the conversation reported Trump being less interested in hearing about how to restore Afghanistan to long-term stability, and more concerned about dealing a swift and definitive blow to militant groups in the country.
The White House has even offered its own, outside-the-box thinking.
Officials said Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, have been pushing a plan to have contractors fight the war in Afghanistan instead of U.S. troops. Blackwater Worldwide founder Erik Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, was approached by Trump's top advisers to develop proposals to gradually swap out U.S. troops and put military contractors in their place, a military official said.
The military has frowned on such proposals. It believes boosting troop levels will accelerate progress in training Afghan troops and its air force, and help counterterrorism teams pursue targets even more aggressively. They point to improvements among Afghan forces and in anti-corruption efforts. Military leaders — including McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, are all said to be on the same page, as is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Military officials also have defended Nicholson, saying any punishment of him would be unfair because he hasn't been given the forces he says he needs. His possible firing was first reported by NBC News.
The White House, which declined multiple requests to comment, may shift itself on Afghanistan now that retired Marine Gen. John Kelly is Trump's new chief of staff. Kelly hasn't spoken about Afghanistan, however, since his appointment this week.
Lawmakers are growing weary. In June, Mattis faced tough questions from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who told him, "It makes it hard for us to support you when we don't have a strategy." Mattis conceded, "We are not winning in Afghanistan right now" and vowed to "correct this as soon as possible."
Doing so requires the president on board. While Trump has been keen to give military officials carte blanche on troop levels and other military affairs, his approach to Afghanistan has grown increasingly assertive. In some ways, his scrutiny of military plans has evoked that of Obama, whom Trump derided as a candidate for not heeding his generals' advice.
Republican lawmakers Thursday urged Trump to listen to his national security advisers on Afghanistan.
"Every soldier over there is an insurance policy against our homeland being attacked," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a leading hawk, told reporters. "My biggest fear is that if you don't listen to the generals and you try to make this up as you go like Obama and Biden did, you're going to wind up losing Afghanistan like you did Iraq and the consequences to America are worse."
U.S. indecision is causing Afghanistan's neighbors to hedge their bets, Sen. Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said.
As long as they believe Washington is "six months away from stepping out, six months away from giving up," they will continue to do so, Corker said.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Deb Reichmann contributed from Washington.